Friday, August 6, 2010

The ghost in the machine

I have been reading The rise and fall of the soul and self: an intellectual history of personal identity by Raymond Martin and John Barresi (Columbia UP, 2006). The basic theme is that just as the idea of the soul has disappeared from scientific explanations of behavior (and from most people's thinking) so the idea of the self (which replaced the soul) is now being questioned if not rejected.

Much of the book, especially the later chapters, focuses on scientific research but philosophical approaches are also covered extensively. One thing that strikes me is the extent to which 20th century psychology was unscientific insofar as many theories and  approaches clearly serve as vehicles for individual (value-laden) points of view rather than contributing to a gradual increase in understanding (as truly scientific work tends to do). I was impressed at how well the Anglo-American analytic philosophical tradition seemed to stand up when compared with certain branches of psychology, and with much continental philosophy.

The gulf between the Anglo-American and continental styles of philosophy is brought out in an anecdote featuring the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle:

'...Ryle attacked not only the Cartesian idea of a self distinct from the body - "the ghost in the machine" - but the very idea of an inner life. In The Concept of Mind (1949), he argued that all meaningful talk of mental episodes - "twitches, itches, and twangs," even a person's being angry - was not about anything private to a person's interior life but about bodily "dispositions to behave."

In  the 1950s and 1960s, in England, ordinary-language philosophy, whose hallmark was to deny the inner life, came into full bloom. Meanwhile, on the continent, phenomenology, whose focus was the examination of inner life, was gathering steam. There was little love lost between the proponents of the two approaches. At a conference, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in a conciliatory gesture, remarked to Ryle, "But are we not doing the same thing?" Ryle responded, "I hope not!" ' (p.244)